“It’s just baby acne,” his doctor told me time and time again. His cheeks blossomed with red bumps that turned into wide, angry abrasions. I was instructed to put steroid cream on his cheeks once, twice, three times a day, but the redness spread until it covered his entire cheeks, upper lip, and chin. The old ladies who stopped me in the store meant well, but every time I was asked, “What’s wrong with your baby?” I bristled in defense.

Weeks went by and then months, and my baby gained control of his arms. He raked at his itchy face, drawing blood to the surface. We trimmed his nails daily and bought special mittens so he couldn’t scratch himself. Instead, he rubbed his face on the carpet, on the mesh panels of his Pack ‘n Play, against anything that offered friction and calmed the terrible itch under his skin.

I stopped posting photos of him on social media because every photo was mercilessly flooded with comments asking what was wrong with him. I took photos every day and sent them to my husband at work, asking constantly, hopefully, “Doesn’t he look better today?”

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At five months old, we took him for allergy testing. Since his big brother has allergies, we hoped it would be something like a milk allergywe’d handle that easily.

Everything came back negative. Our hopes of allergies were dashed, and we were left wondering what was wrong with our baby.

After allergy tests and dermatologist visits (confirming it was eczema), we were no closer to finding out what was causing this eczema. Hundreds of dollars were spent on creams and lotions. We cut out any foods that might exacerbate it. We forced foul-tasting steroids and antibiotics down his throat. We slathered him in steroids day after day.

While playing at the library, I put him down on the ground, and he pulled himself over to an older baby. With a glare at me, the mother scooped her child up and looked at my son with ill-disguised disgust on her face. She looked at my son as if he was contagious or dangerous.

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That day, I broke down and sobbed as I typed a long message on my local Facebook mom group. I posted photos and responses of comfort flooded in.

With every response, I cried more until I could hardly see the screen in front of me. They gave me ideas of products to try and things to research.

The next day, I stopped using steroids. He had been on hydrocortisone three times a day since he was six weeks oldit had been over seven months of nonstop use. His skin wasn’t improving with the use, so I decided to cut it out, call it a mom gut feeling. Of course, his skin got far worse as he detoxed from the constant use, but like magic, he seemed to level out. He was far from being better, but this was a good first step.

One day, while standing in line, I heard a little girl ask her dad, “What’s wrong with that baby?” The dad got my attention and gestured to the baby sitting on my hip. “That looks like it hurts!” I smiled and nodded, but didn’t respond for fear of breaking down in tears in front of this stranger.

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Finally, we switched doctors. When the new doctor walked into the room, she stopped in her tracks as she stared at his oozing face. I had bloody smears on the shoulders of my shirt where he had rubbed against me for comfort.

“That’s eczema, all right,” she said. “But that’s also a severe infection. Let’s get this figured out.”

It felt like the clouds parted with this new doctor who seemed to genuinely care about our little guy. 

She prescribed an intense week of strong oral and topical antibiotics and respected our wishes to avoid steroids if possible. She listened to us as we talked about his symptoms, and after the visit, I cried in the car. I felt seen and heard for the first time since he was born.

After a week of antibiotics and a basic skincare routine, his skin started to clear. Every day, it got better and better. Soon, instead of angry, red, oozing rashes, we saw flashes of pink, healthy skin. His big, bright, blue eyes became the star of his face, and when I was stopped in public, I was complimented on my beautiful baby.

The photos from those early days still haunt me today. When I look back to a year ago, I tear up thinking about the utter hopelessness I felt, but then I search out my wild toddler to kiss his cheeksno traces left of the horrible eczema that plagued us for over a year.

Cassandra Kostuch

Cassandra Kostuch is a stay at home of four rough and tumble kids: Stella, Lennox, Mattimeo, and Tobin. When she’s not refereeing matches between the kids and wondering how her coffee got cold so fast, she’s writing short stories about her mothering experiences and lessons she’s learned from her kids.